Tax law: area of practice (barristers)
Tax lawyers do one of two things for one of two clients. You are either acting for Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) or acting for someone who is, or is contemplating, litigating against HMRC. Or you are advising on the tax effects of particular transactions.
Tax cases require careful preparation
Tax cases have large sums of money at stake and even as a recently called junior you could find yourself fighting cases with six- or seven-figure sums involved. As a result, clients expect exceptionally careful preparation on cases. Drafting, pleadings, statements, advising on tactics and prospects, and interlocutory hearings take substantial time and keep you away from mainstream courtroom advocacy. A barrister in this area – even one who specialises in litigation – can expect to spend perhaps ten per cent of their time in court, but long hours and last minute work are unlikely. The tax bar is about a narrow, albeit important, aspect of people’s lives – money. If your reason for coming to the bar is a desire to experience the rich and varied nature of humanity then perhaps tax law is not for you.
The process begins with HMRC issuing a decision. That decision can be challenged in the First-tier Tribunal tax chamber. This process can typically take about 18 months, and it is rare for larger cases not to reach the Upper Tribunal and Court of Appeal. A specialist taxpayer advocate might have 15 or 20 cases on the go at any one time, while an advocate with an HMRC practice could have as many as 40. Typical clients in this area might be individuals and corporates who have embarked upon, or are considering, tax planning.
Cases you should know as a student
Tax is a hot political topic at the moment and there are tax cases in the media all the time. A good recent example of the better known cases relating to personal tax planning is the Icebreaker case, involving a number of celebrities in the music industry and world of sports, who signed up to the Icebreaker arrangements.
Tax law is very intellectually demanding – no matter how long you’ve been in practice you never feel you’ve completely mastered it – and that is a major plus point. Cases in this area are almost always reported, and this demonstrable record of achievement, along with early High Court advocacy experience, means that tax barristers are often quicker to silk than their peers in other areas. Currently, the most important debate in the sphere of tax avoidance is between the ruling on the House of Lords case BMBF v. Mawson and a recent Supreme Court decision in a case called HMRC v. Tower M Cashback. These two cases are difficult or impossible to reconcile and the question of which to follow is at the heart of an awful lot of tax avoidance litigation.
In a recession there tend to be fewer deals done and advisory-heavy practices can suffer. Litigation practices, while perhaps not countercyclical, are not susceptible to the same recessionary pressure. Finance Bills get fatter every year, which adds complexity and generates work for professionals who need to help clients get to grips with new legislation.
As a pupil
As a pupil, you will work on answers to advisory problems and should pay careful attention to the quality of work that you produce. You will normally be expected to work some variant of office hours. As a tenant in the early days, you need to be a good self-starter, you need to be somebody who is motivated to go and develop their own practice and be prepared to do the writing and talking.
The early days at the tax bar are difficult. High-value cases mean the inclination to rely on ‘junior juniors’ is much lower than in other areas of practice. Juniors may take up teaching fellowships, writing for professional journals, writing books and undertake tax-related qualifications to supplement their practice.
Types of law practised
Good tax law barristers have...
- A precise way with language and a careful eye for statutory detail
- A high level of academic achievement, more so than other areas
- An aptitude for quality and correctness above all else
JOLYON MAUGHAM is a barrister at DEVEREUX CHAMBERS who specialises in tax litigation. He graduated in European legal studies from Durham University and the Catholic University of Leuven in 1995.